November 19, 2015

The forensic artistry of Kane Williamson

His game appears to lack emotion but it is not cold. Like Kallis, but more adaptable and with greater flair

No batsman uses the crease, forward and back, with such efficiency as Kane Williamson © Getty Images

To do the job he must have an ego. In the job there is no sign of it. Kane Williamson bats with the voice of reason in his head, an uncomplicated man going about a complicated task unusually well. There is something both forensic and artistic in his play. One minute the scalpel, next minute the broad brush of a thick paint.

Steven Smith must be sick of the sight of him. Young captains tend to think they have the answers but Williamson remains as great a conundrum today as the minute he slapped Pat Cummins into the stands at Eden Park at the climax of their frenzied World Cup match last February.

If a ball is pitched up, Williamson moves forward; if a ball is short, he plays back. When defence is the requirement, he defends; if it needs to be dispatched, he dispatches. These are rare attributes: dare one say it, robotic almost. His game appears to lack emotion but it is not cold. Jacques Kallis boasted a similar technique but appeared wedded to the production line. Williamson seems more able to move with the wind.

Garry Sobers was once asked how he picked length so quickly and, aghast at the question, he said simply that you watched the point of release from the bowler's hand and moved forward if it happened early and back when it happened late. Barry Richards concurred. Most batsmen see a blur a few yards away and react accordingly. One senses Williamson is blessed with an eye more Sobers and Richards than Joe Soap.

Strikingly, Martin Crowe, Sir Richard Hadlee and Brendon McCullum have all said that Williamson will be New Zealand's best ever batsman. Right or wrong, the point is made by people who know a bit about these things. (At Malcolm Marshall's memorial service, Wes Hall stood at the lectern to open his address and said, "Malcolm Denzil Marshall was the greatest fast bowler who ever lived, and the one thing Wesley Hall truly does know about is faaast bowling." It brought the house down and, of course, was the ultimate endorsement.)

The only small aesthetic grumble with Williamson could be the high, early pick-up and then the waving of the bat

Time will tell. Injuries, exposure, schedules, fortune and family can all change a man. There are seven exceptional batsmen in the world today - AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, Virat Kohli, Steven Smith and David Warner, Joe Root and Williamson. One or two linger beneath these elite - Ross Taylor, Alastair Cook and Younis Khan among them. All have an instinctive ability to adapt their batting to the requirements of the moment. In today's mad world, the reverse sweep is as powerful a part of the vernacular as the late cut. From de Villiers we get a pot pourri and hints of genius. From Amla, an innate calm. In Kohli, a devil's eye betrays raw passion. In Smith there is a quirkiness, a box of frogs. In Warner there is intimidation; in Root, an energy and swagger. From Williamson we get, well, Williamson - straight lines, full face of the bat, gilded footwork, minimum fuss, big scores.

Fresh-faced and out of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, where one supposes not much happens other than an old-fashioned rhythm to life, he was popular and talented at school, if mocked a little for his relentless pursuit of improvement. Glenn Turner worked with him and was impressed by the boy's reflections on the art of batting. "His mind was open to learning," says Turner.

Mind and matter - batting's holy grail - the search for a clear head within the complexities of the technical questions asked by bowlers, pitches, climates and match situations. Crowe calls it traffic, or rather he says no one can bat with traffic. This is more than just a dead- aim focus on the ball. It is a zen mind.

Heaven knows how Sachin Tendulkar batted with a zen mind. Each step of his journey was dialled into by a billion others. At his best, Tendulkar appeared to be the most complete of all batsmen - a symphony of movements, timing and control. One imagines Sir Donald Bradman was like this, if with more zeal.

The only small aesthetic grumble with Williamson could be the high, early pick-up and then the waving of the bat. More current players do this than ever before. Smith holds it aloft before giving it a good old fan; Root keeps the face surprisingly shut. Amla almost goes full circle. But they all drop it back down the line and meet the bowler with the maker's name. The reason is unclear. Heavier bats, perhaps, or the baseball-like needs of T20. Tony Greig, who did the same, used to say that it was simply for comfort, given his height. Graham Gooch wanted to ensure his eyes were level and felt the orthodox method of stance led to his head falling to the off side.

Williamson offers straight lines, full face of the bat, gilded footwork, minimum fuss, big scores © Getty Images

Last summer in England, I asked Williamson to play in a charity match. Brendon McCullum had committed, along with Tendulkar and others of such stature. His face lit up. Clearly Tendulkar was a previously unreachable summit. I suggested they would play on the same team and maybe bat together. Now I had him.

Then we examined the date of the match and found it clashed with the Glastonbury music festival, to which he was going with his girlfriend. He said he would speak to her. The answer was emphatic and went something like, pull out of Glastonbury and I'll chop you off at the knees. He figured it was a senseless waste of the lower half of his legs, so went rocking'n rollin instead of batting with God.

Those who saw the 20-year-old Tendulkar make a hundred against a strong Australian side in Perth in 1990, tell you it was masterclass. Those of us who have watched Williamson at the Gabba and the WACA these past two weeks have reverted to "masterclass" time after time. We must try harder.

No batsman uses the crease, forward and back, with such efficiency. No batsman holds his elbow high and in command of the stroke to greater effect. Few play the ball so late. Fewer keep their head so steady and eyes so level. Hardly any retain such a side-on position to balls that move (not that many have in this batsman-friendly series), and none have such control over their human vulnerabilities.

Let me take you back to that World Cup match in March. New Zealand were nine down and in need of 6 to win. Trent Boult is a gimme as far as opponents are concerned but he somehow resisted two Starc thunderbolts. After that, Williamson was on his own against Pat Cummins. The fascination was who would out manoeuvre who. A two here and a boundary there, perhaps, from the batsman? A searing, swinging yorker from the bowler? Fine leg was up, long-on back. A ramp shot maybe? Third man was up, mid-off back. A reverse sweep, gulp, maybe. The whole of New Zealand was watching, along with most of Australia. Cummins steamed in and bowled the ball on a good length.

Williamson smashed it into the stands over mid-on as if it was a most natural and modest act. Ian Smith, commentating, lost the plot. Game over. Eden Park went to Disneyland. Some dude this Kane Williamson. Roll on Adelaide.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK